fighingIn my 11th grade American Literature class, my students and I started talking about this cycle of cruelty among the characters in the novella, particularly the villain and his wife. From our analysis of Of Mice and Men, we decided Steinbeck argued that cruelty can be a reaction to fear or loneliness. We shared some of our won experiences where we had seen others act cruelly to others due to fear or loneliness and even looked at our own actions. I couldn’t help but remember a high school acquaintance whose name I will change to David who was cruel to another kid and wondered about all the possible causes for his rage. I’m still haunted by my own cruelty for not doing anything to stop what I had seen or help. We all spent about 30 minutes writing about an experience. I shared my story later with them during our readings:

It was an unusually hot day in May my junior year in high school after a late Spring storm’s winds and thunder had electrified the valley before rampaging on to the East. David was going to fight another guy that day. Big, tough David with reddish hair and tattoos who worked out and drank beer and got drunk and liked to fight.

Who the other guy was I did not know. But the rumor hummed around that they were meeting at Beryl Park after school. And that is all I or the other teens at Alta Loma High School needed to know.

We all piled into our friends cars and blared out Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails from our radio speakers, pumped for the entertainment of plows and punches, laughing and shouting excitedly for the coming show: thirsty.

We all sat on our tailgates in the parking lot. A collection of used Jeeps and Bugs, lifted F-150’s and Tacomas, and shiny new Ford Mustangs lined with teens in Doc Martins and baggy jeans–white kids with too much time, waiting for the guy to show up whom David was going to fight.

But the guy didn’t show.
And David was ready to fight.
Fight him.
Fight someone.
Fight anyone.

He needed to release that angry beast raging inside of him. Angry at who or what, I don’t know. His father perhaps–a lion of his own past who called him stupid or weak? A mother who left him for her drugs two days before his 5th birthday? Maybe a child-molesting uncle? Or a long-legged girl who broke his heart his sophomore year?

We thought it was time to go, disappointed, heads shaking and downcast, eyes parched for the sight of blood, ears for the thud of punches and the fumbling of legs over shoulders and backs. Maybe because the violence could somehow make us feel alive.

But just as we started to pack up to leave, David started to roar; roar like a hungry lion. Colors poured out of him—black and red and purple, pouring from his mouth and his pores and his eyes.

We all turned and saw and knew. Something crazy was going to happen. The hairs on the back of my neck and arms delightfully sprang up in response.

And so he charged at some random guy there. Some guy just like me or him or her—smoking a cigarette and wearing a wife-beater and unlaced Vans. He sat there just like the others–there to watch. The guy had no idea he would be the one David would fight as we all watched with mouths agape. And he did not have time to prepare, as he laid on the hood of his car, lighting another cigarette with the burning tip of the first, only to look up to hear the noise of David’s roar and see him charging after him.

David beat the $#!% out of that kid. Beat him to a bloody pulp—missing teeth, a gash across his brow, eyes swollen immediately. He left that boy unconscious on the hot, black asphalt that day in May of 1996.

And everyone backed away, disturbed by the width and depth and height of David’s anger, not wanting to be next; and recognizing the severity of what just happened, they felt that surge of fear of cops and sirens, and quickly hopped into their cars, squealing away.

I stood there watching the kid moan on the rough parking lot asphalt, stagger up and stumble back down with eyes of confusion—no doubt wondering what happened.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

He didn’t answer–just laid there and wiped the blood from his lip, eyes wet with tears, and looked around, studying at us through murky orbs, as if he were trying to decide if he was really seeing us.

And then I just walked home with my friends: a cruel act of silence. I left him isolated and abandoned because I was afraid of what I saw. And perhaps because I was afraid of that evil part of me in the layers of my kind shell that liked the entertainment. I wanted to push his bloody image away from me at any expense. Not realizing that the image of him left alone in that park would haunt me the rest of my life.

I wonder if this experience hardened him. Made him angry and cruel. Just like David.



Broken Idols and a Quest for Self-Worth: a love story

My senior year in high school, I made it my mission to get Bryan Parker (name changed) to fall in love with me. No I take that back. To fall BACK in love with me. Admitting that asks for a back story I’m not entirely willing to share or else write an entire novel instead of a 750 word blog and a mess of baggage that would make a psychotherapist squirm in his chair with delight, but its true.

But looking at the whole story almost 20 years later, I realize now that this mission was much more than just gaining Bryan’s heart back. This mission was about forgiving myself. About proving my stepfather wrong. And about making myself worthy of love. It was a selfish quest built on low self-esteem, a distorted self-image, and a lack of identity and self-worth.


My senior photo–on a mission for self-worth

He was my first love my sophomore year. 5’11, quiet, with dark brown hair, blue eyes, a few freckles on his slightly turned up nose. He often wore blue-checkered, collared shirts and flannels with jeans. I still remember the way he looked walking through the halls—head down, a mop of thick dark hair hanging over his brows, his arms crossed, and his large black pack-pack filled with honors level coursework hung over his shoulder. He loved science, art, and cars. I gave him my heart, my soul, my everything.

And my stepdad did not approve. His anger simmered and boiled over and exploded the summer between my sophomore and junior year when all the truth about our relationship had been uncovered.

Fast forward to December of my junior year in high school—after a forced break up, a transfer to another school, no knowledge of my phone number, and no contact with my old friends or old life—my stepfather left our home forever and I came back to my old high school in Alta Loma, an affluent campus at the foothills of Cucamonga Peak, excited to be back and talk to him again.

That is until I found out that Bryan had hooked up with someone else while I was away. One of my sisters friends.  I felt so cheap. He couldn’t make it 6 months without having to find someone new? Didn’t he love me the way I had loved him? Didn’t what we have mean anything to him? And so in an impulsive anger, I got back at him by hooking up with his best friend.

And I regretted it immediately.

Of course, he was mad. He refused to talk to me. Ignored me the rest of my junior year. It was probably for the best. I had to really emotionally heal from all the anger inside of me. I was angry at my stepdad, myself, him, and the world. But alas, the details of my junior year in high school is for another story. This is about getting Bryan back.

So the summer after junior year, I woke up one sunny morning in a campground in Santa Maria and looked out at the big blue sky, listening to the lazy beats of Sublime playing from my best friend Lisa’s car stereo, and I decided I was no longer angry anymore. I could smile genuinely again. I had friends and fun life away from the strict rules of my stepfather and the misery of that angry junior year. But one thing was missing in my mind. I couldn’t truly have made it, until I got Bryan back.

I don’t really remember the details of the strategies or the sequence of events and how I did it. But I got pretty far. Smiles and notes. Flirtatious hello’s and invitations to come to this event or that event. I had the advantage my senior year of a very active weekend life. My group of girlfriends had developed a great connection with some college-aged friends who lived nearby and were always throwing parties, going to the river, concerts, and clubs. And they liked us. So eventually, Bryan accepted. And I always made sure I looked amazing when he would come. This was probably right after the new year of 1997.

Eventually we were walking to class together, and even kissing again. We in many ways my senior year, had the all the experiences I had only wished to have had with him when we were together under my stepdad’s reign. But this time I don’t think we used the term “boyfriend and girlfriend.” Still–I wasn’t going to push it. I just needed to hear those 3 special words.

I got close. I remember him telling me that he liked the way I dressed better than my friends. That he liked the way I danced better than others. I remember him saying sweet words like “you are so cute.” We even went to prom together. I think it was at prom that I felt that I had finally made it. I was at prom wearing a stunning silver sequenced floor length gown with a peak-a-boo halter and my hair up in curls with the love of my life who looked like Jake Guillinhall on the red carpet. My stepdad could bite it, I thought. Maybe I was still angry at him, at least.

But then something changed.

Within a couple of weeks, after I had given Bryan my book of poetry I had basically written all about him and other feelings from my life, he found pages in the book that had been torn out. I had torn them out because I messed up my handwriting, scribbled too much out and didn’t want it to mess up the beauty of my book. But he didn’t see it that way. He started getting paranoid, thinking that I must have been writing about other guys. He called me names: vindictive, liar, manipulative. I didn’t get it. I begged him to believe that he was my one and only. But he just couldn’t get passed it. In the end, I think it was all rooted in his inability to forgive me for my real transgression the year before.

One rainy day in May, he wrote me a note. It said, I hate you too much to be your boyfriend. But I love you too much to be just friends. All is lost. 

I wrote back, how can I have lost someone, I never truly had?

Still–I asked for one last date, in hopes that somehow it could be amazing enough to change his perspective. I wore my white crocheted sundress and matching white sandals, my hair down and curled, thankful the el Niño rains had dissipated long enough for a brief sensation of spring. In my mind I had played out an entire scene—laughter and joking, holding hands as we walked down the sidewalk.  One long last kiss under a big oak tree and him realizing that he didn’t want to miss any of this. That he was wrong and being silly and that he loved me.

That he would drop me off but then turn around half way, run out from his car and catch me just before I reached my door. The rain would start pouring down from the sky, his hair dripping wet, and his clothing soaked. But he didn’t care. He’d cry out, “Theresa! I love you! You are the only one I can see my life with!” And then I’d run to him and we’d kiss right there in the rain, its sheets wrapping us in our forgiveness, washing away all of the anger and tears forever. We’d then spend the bright summer frolicking on the sands of Huntington Beach, planning the rest of our lives together.

But he was emotionally gone by the time we had that last date—like someone literally turned off a switch in him. We went out, but he didn’t make eye contact. He didn’t ask questions. We sat awkwardly over our meal listening to the tinking of our spoons against our porcelain bowls and the slurping of our sodas through our straws. It culminated at the Koffee Klatch off of Foothill Blvd. where we talked about our futures. More like only him after I asked the questions, trying to keep the conversation going…to keep the night going. Anything but say goodbye. He talked about college, grad school, and becoming a doctor. He didn’t mention me in those dreams.

He dropped me off around 11 o’clock at my house and I sat in that passenger seat of his father’s white Camaro wanting so bad for him to recognize that this would be the last time he’d see me and that this would make him sad. So I said goodbye. No kiss. No long last hug. Just goodbye. I opened the door slowly, and then closed it–watched him turn the car around out of the parking lot of my apartment complex and drive away. I stared at those red tail lights until they became tiny pinpoints and then dissolved into the darkness of the night. He never did turn around. I stood there a very long time under the silent black sky. Then went inside and cried myself to sleep.

I wish I could say that it was good riddance. That I knew I had done nothing wrong and chalked his behavior up to a crazy, paranoid boy. But I didn’t. I was devastated. I sunk into a deep depression. Graduation came and went. I walked. But he was not there to give me flowers or a lei under the misty, twilight sky. After that June night, I spiraled through a series of self-destructive and self-hating actions that summer after senior year while the rest of my friends began preparing for college. My mission had failed. And he saw me the same way I felt  my stepdad saw me: worthless. The first three months were the hardest, darkest of my life.  I essentially became what I thought I was.

But in an upside down and twisted version of the summer revelation I had the prior year, the August after I graduated high school, I woke up around 4 P.M one late August afternoon with no job to go to and after a night of binge drinking. I looked in the mirror and knew I had to get out or I’d never get out of the pit I had put myself in. I wanted to be happy again. But I couldn’t if I stayed in that town where everything reminded me of them. Of Bryan. Of my stepdad—The men I both loved and hated. The ones I spent so much energy trying to get to love me for me– two opposing sides of the same coin I had hoped to use to redeem my self-worth.

In desperation, I called my real dad up—the dad I saw only during the summer from ages 8-12 and then one weekend a month from thereafter. He invited me to move to San Diego and move in with him. I could go to college out there and start a new life.

So I did. I packed up my stuff on my mom’s birthday, kissed my brother and sister goodbye and left. I don’t even think I said goodbye to my friends. No goodbye party. No goodbye call even. I think I finally told them I was gone after I had already been there for two weeks. I was over that life. Everything reminded me of him and of the awful person I had become.

That move was the best decision I ever made in my life. I essentially recreated myself, becoming the person who I always wanted to be. I got my driver’s license,  went to Palomar Community College, and graduated with honors and an A.A degree. During that time, I worked as a waitress for 5 years in the evenings and a jet ski resort in the summers in Carlsbad. I transferred to Cal State San Marcos and graduated again with honors and a B.A degree after cocktail waitressing at a local watering hole and trying my skills at editing jobs for a few large companies.  I then enrolled in the credential program and became a teacher, wanting to make a difference in the lives of teenagers who maybe struggled with their identity as much as I had when I was young. I made many friends along the way. Dated. Got a long-term boyfriend who I loved. Traveled through Mexico and Costa Rica, snowboarded on numerous mountains in the West. I lived a great life.

But one thing still haunted me all those years. I still dreamed about Bryan in my sleep. Always a similar story. We see each other after many years. Hearts race. We reunite. And I’d wake up wishing I could just get him out of my head and my heart. I didn’t want to dream about him. Finally at the age of 25, after I confessed to my mom my haunting dreams, she told me that sometimes, people can develop “soul ties” with their first loves they were intimate with. Makes sense when God says he will make the two become one. And that perhaps that was the issue. She prayed over me to cut the ties and release me. I know it sounds crazy, but the craziest part about it all is that it worked. I no longer dreamed of him. I was free to finally move forward with my life 100%. And that even meant forgiving my stepdad for all he had done to hurt me. And later on realize, I too had done much to hurt him. My eyes were opened.

It’s been 11 years since my mother cut that soul tie between Bryan and I, and just the other day, his profile picture showed up in my Facebook feed as a suggestion for a friend. My heart did not skip a beat. It was like looking at any old picture of a friend from long ago. Somebody I used to know, as the Gotye song goes. But I did actually laugh a little because there was a girl in the picture too. And she looked just like me.

Funny thing is, she looked Hispanic too. And this conjured up all sorts of memories of him in a light I hadn’t really seen before. I remember he hated that Hispanic part about me. He was so embarrassed that I was Colombian that he hid that from his own father, who had a confederate flag hanging in his garage. And he hated it when I spoke Spanish, always asking me to stop. I guess he changed too. Twenty years will do that to any of us, I suppose.

All those years in high school, I had built him up in my mind to be so wonderful, believing that if I had him, it meant I was worthy of love. But the truth be told, he was flawed too. He had been the entire time I worshiped him. But I don’t think I saw it because I had elevated him to a position that was meant to save me. And we don’t like our saviors to be tainted.

While this story in many ways is about a love story gone awry–it really is about a love story with myself. How and when do we begin to love ourselves? When should we give our selves away and what are the consequences  when do? Today, I don’t need him or my stepdad or anyone other than God to define my self-worth. To do so makes them idols and makes our self-worth only as strong as the person we build our self-worth upon. When they fall or fail, we do too. I did. And as I look at my own amazing husband now, and our four beautiful children, I thank God that somehow he gave me the strength to pick up the pieces of that shattered dream and reform it into something so much better than I ever could have had with Bryan. I just didn’t know it then. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say. But thankfully, I’m not in the shadows, looking back at the light.

Life as a Speckled Bird: a powerful memoir about a woman’s quest for independence and love

Theresa Hemsath holds the copy of the memoir Life as a Speckled BirdI am so excited to announce that my very first client’s memoir is officially published! I started working with this wise woman last year, interviewing her about her life, in order to pull together the stories from hers. As an elderly woman approaching the end of her life, she is no doubt like many people in the world–looking back at her life and wanting to put in perspective, and determining its purpose in the big scheme of eternity.

I whole-heartedly love memoirs myself because they are real. Some of my favorites include Alcohol: A Love Story,  Hypocrite in a Poofy White Dress, and Running in the Family. These are real stories about real people. I have certainly learned from these memoirs and especially from interviewing this woman that we do not need fiction to have a good story.

the back cover of Life as a Speckled Bird is Intriguing! It took a few weeks of interviews to pull all her stories together, but let me tell you–I laughed and I cried, and I wept with this woman as I walked in her shoes during those one-hour interviews during the Fall of 2014. When it was all over, I thanked her for her wisdom and her desire to take the bitterness and pain in her life and use it for good–to teach and to warn others about how family dysfunction can affect people their entire lives. Her stories made me want to go home and cling to my children and to my husband and speak nothing but hope and love into their ears. It made me look at my childhood baggage and how I could use it for good.

While her book is not published for the public, but for her friends and family–the 50 people who will read this book and their own friends and family members will have difficult time putting it down.It will be an amazing record/imprint for her children, grandchildren, and their future generations.

If you are thinking about your own life and wanting to get it down, no matter what your age, I highly suggest writing your memoirs now while your memory is still good and the individual stories don’t fade or merge with others. I work for an awesome Memoir Writing company called The Sound of Your Voice Memoir which offers workshops on how to write your own memoir,  but also offers help in writing yours along with some amazing memoir packages, so you can have a numerous copies to give to your friends and family.

Do you write your memoirs? If you blog them, I’d love to read some. Share some of your blog links to memoirs you have written in the comments below as well as any questions about memoir writing. I’d be happy to give you some tips.  I myself have written a few memoirs from my life. Rather than putting it together as one long story, right now, my memoirs are smaller stories about different episodes of my life. I do hope and plan to one day thread them all together into one book.

If you are thinking about writing your own or want to improve your writing craft, I highly recommend this classic book that most writers will swear by–On Writing Well, 30th Anniversary Edition: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

This book has been monumental in my own craft as a writer. You will enjoy it too. The writer is entertaining as he is informative. I use an affiliate link here. So if you choose to buy it on Amazon with my link, you will not be paying extra. But Amazon shares with me some change from their profits to support my blog.

It’s Raining, it’s Pouring: how to make Colombian hot chocolate

200236712-001My son this morning stared in awe at the wonder before his eyes. Water was falling from the sky and Kanan wanted to know what the heck was going on. His little mouth fell open and he kept pointing out of the car and saying “whats that?” He also did not like my windshield wipers going back and forth until I started moving my right arm in the same motions and saying “wipe” everytime it sprung back to position. He laughed and laughed.

I love the rain. It makes me think of childhood. Here is a link to a little story I wrote a couple of years ago about rain and childhood. I hope you enjoy. 🙂

Oh and after reading the story, and you would like to make this lovely chocolate beverage here is a simple recipe.

Colombian Hot Chocolate

  1. break up 1 block of colombian chocolate (70% cocao)
  2. bring desired amount of milk to a boil (how manycups of chocolate you want will be dependent on the ounces of milk).
  3. Add chocolate chunks into milk
  4. add desired amount of sugar
  5. whisk with a molinillo (a wooden whisker specifically for chocolate)
  6. simmer until melted, whisking as you go
  7. pour into a mug
  8. add one chunk of queso blanco into the center of your hot chocolate and let melt
  9. enjoy!



How To Make Colombian Hot Chocolate

I sit here on this rainy afternoon, smelling the wet cement outside my classroom door, looking down at my hot chocolate sitting in my coffee mug. I take a sip and feel the sugar crystals melting in my mouth and a mild nostalgia takes over me-bittersweet. I am reminded of my youth in San Bernardino County. It was during the year it rained and rained and rained. So many kids hated the rain. But rain always reminds me of my mother’s Colombian hot chocolate-of my brother and sister. Of an innocence and glee for life, which has begun to crust and separate now- like cheap hot chocolate after it sits too long-how I yearn for the chocolate of my youth again.

My mother got huge blocks of Colombian Chocolate from her mother every time she went back home to Bogota to visit our family. Family I have never met and hope to know one day. She took out the block and put it on a cutting board and broke it with a kitchen hammer. Then she poured the bittersweet chunks into a big pot with sugar and milk and boiled it until the chocolate melted and then simmered it for a long time, whisking it with this giant wooden whisker she called a molinillo, letting the happy chemicals in the chocolate saturate the milk. To pass the time, she sent my brother, sister and I outside, bundled up in winter clothes to go play in the rain. We ran around wildly, taking our umbrellas not for protection, but to use as buckets as we filled them up with rain-water flowing down from the drain pipe off our roof and then laughed as we dumped it over our heads. We soaked ourselves clear though our long johns and gleefully shivered. We jumped in the puddles that formed in the streets, laid on our bellies and dared each other to lick the rain off the cement driveway. We played hide and go seek, and between games tilted our heads back, tongues completely out, tasting the semi-sweet, earthy flavor of the sky.

After about 45 minutes, the cold would no longer feel good and my mother knew this, prepared and all. She called out our names and opened up the garage, still warm from the heat of the washer and dryer. She pulled out fresh clothes for us, hot and smelling of Mountain Fresh scented drier sheets. We undressed and changed right there, giggling and telling our mother of our adventures so quickly, I’m surprised she could even make out our words. Then she opened the door leading into the house and handed each of us each a steaming cup of Colombian hot chocolate with at a drop of queso blanco floating in the center. We smelled the sweet aroma, carefully walked to the living room, taking short steps which barely lifted our feet from the carpet, so as not to spill the chocolate. There in the living room awaited a blazing fire in the fireplace, the smell of the burning wood, mixed with the steam of the chocolate, and I sunk easily into the moment-comfort’s womb. The three of us sipped our hot chocolates in silence, and with chocolate mustaches and peace in our eyes, took out our coloring books, and colored right on the brick step of the fireplace. My mother sat on the couch, watching us in silence as well, a satisfied smile on her face. I remember glancing back at her and watching her sip her chocolate drink long and slowly, closing her eyes. I like to imagine, it was in that very moment she was dreaming of her childhood in Los Angeles and the family adventures in Bogota, Colombia-the country where she grew to understand love and family-and where she would gain the wisdom to teach us these things.

My mother doesn’t get Colombian blocks of chocolate anymore. But when I finally get to visit for the first time that country of my blood, I will buy enough to last my lifetime.

My Writings

Okay–some of you all know that I’ve been publishing my writing through a website called Helium, but many of you haven’t. Honestly, anyone can publish their stuff through the site so this is in no way showing off on my part. But what I like about the site is that writers can compete for titles. A few of my pieces are not doing so hot. They are in the middle or in the lower half. However,  a couple of my pieces have done really well and so that is exciting too. And as an added bonus, if magazines or other mediums want to include a piece under a certain topic or title, Helium offers them one of their top rating articles for that title and the writer can get paid. How much have I made so far? Oh probably like 3 dollars. No–please, no pictures or autographs right now. I’m a very rich and important woman. 🙂

Well, if you are ever interested in seeing how my stuff is doing, feel free to check my page out at http://www.helium.com/users/378127

I will also add this link to my blog roll.


Those Amazing Teachable Moments

//www.starbeck.com/images/as_131_smile_mask.jpgIf someone had asked me why I wanted to teach high school students or to teach English, they would not hear me speak about my excitement over creating grammar trees or analyzing the conflict in the plot of a story or determining whether or not Hamlet is insane. I wanted and still want to teach high school students through literature and writing because I want to make a difference in their lives.  Literature and writing was the only avenue that allowed me to get in touch with my emotions in high school and college. High school is a terribly confusing time for most teenagers and many of them, I myself was one of them, couldn’t find solace at home. How much I would have loved to hear from someone willing to talk about the struggles of being a teenager and how they got through it. Someone who truly understood what I was going through and willing to admit some of the things they learned. Someone who could be a good example to me.

Of course, I have long stretches of time in my classes where all I do end up teaching them is how to analyze a character and how to determine whether a word is an adjective or an adverb, but every once in a while, I am blessed with an opportunity to teach my teenagers about life. Sometimes it may be through the theme of a story that everyone is into and I can hear their silence…but a different kind. A silence that screams thought and contemplation instead of boredom or apathy. But even better are those moments before, during, or after school, when I can teach them about something that is affecting them right now.

I had that moment today.

We just finished a unit on Poetry. I love poetry and I loved poetry in high school. But one thing I remember from poetry in high school is that I learned more from the poems that connected to my life than the poems that Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson ever wrote about. Browsing through the curriculum that I was to teach this year, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly we would rush through poetry without ever having students learn how to apply it to their own writing or to have them share poems that make them think or feel something. So I made some adjustments. I required each one of my students to either bring in a poem that they wrote or a poem that someone else wrote, but that they liked. Everyday, someone would read their poem and we would talk about it before jumping into the day’s lesson. I even told them that I wanted this poetry unit to be meaningful to them. And as we studied poetry, I often asked them to think about how they could write poetry using some of the figurative language or techniques that the poets of our curriculum used. I saw many amateur poets excitedly practicing their skills on their college-ruled lined paper that they folded and stuffed into pockets or passed on to friends in the halls.

Today one of my students brought in a poem that she wrote. It was a free-verse confessional poem about the masks she wears and her desperation to be liberated from the lies she lies behind. She started to cry while reading it and the entire class was screaming the silence of complete understanding. We all gave her a big group hug and when I heard students whispering to each other about how they felt the sameway  and when I saw tears well up in a few empathetic audience members, I knew I had to set aside my lesson for the moment and use this opportunity to teach them something.

I asked them to raise their hand if they felt the way she did. Every single hand went up. Twenty hands from twenty 14-year-olds of every color and social group and intelligence level. Twenty teenagers who thought that no one understood them, but learned right there that they had more in common then they thought. For half an hour we talked about the masks we wear in high school. About how tough it is when we don’t know who we are. I shared with them how much I had felt the same way when I was a freshman. And then I felt called to take it to a deeper level and bring up how so many teenagers turn to drugs to find comfort in their confusion and how this just fuels the vicious cycle of not being self-actualized. I explained to them that what they are feeling is normal– about the development of their frontal lobe and what areas of our thinking and acting that it influences. Also coincidentally, the very same part of the brain that drugs destroy, slowing its development or preventing it from ever developing at all until they find themselves at the age of 35 and realizing they are at the emotional level of a 14-year-old and wonder if it is too late to ever figure life out. Students asked a lot of questions. Questions about alcohol and marijuana. About where to draw the line.  About what to do about “friends” who are abusing drugs. I had one student ask me what she could do to help herself not feel so lost and confused. She finally realized she was normal, but still wanted hope. I gave them both secular and spiritual advice. I told her and the rest of the class to write, to exercise, to stay active, to do more of the things that help them release emotions and energy. I told them to associate themselves with people who love and respect them no matter who they are, be it family or close, true friends. And I told them, that for me, Jesus has made a difference. I made sure to say “for me” so that I couldn’t be accused of telling them they HAD to develop a personal relationship with their creator even though I wanted to so bad. This is definitely one of the downsides of working in public education and I’m not sure if I will have a job tomorrow. But the atmosphere of the class had gotten so personal at that moment, I think it will stay indoors. If not, I have faith that I will be okay.

It was hard to change the subject to our analytical essays afterward, but we all made the transition. I told them that they could come and talk to me anytime they wanted and that I would listen and not judge them and to do my best to share my wisdom. I told them that our class was a family and I watched their heads nod in agreement. It was a powerful moment.

In the end, it really doesn’t matter if these kids walk away from my class knowing the difference between a simile and a metaphor. But if they walk our of my door knowing that they are not alone and there is light at the end of the dark tunnel of adolescence without masks or drugs or suicide, then to me, I have made a difference. I hope they all sleep a little better tonight. And maybe try writing another poem again soon.

Erica: a tale of best friends, childhood, and loss of innocence

 Some of you have read this memoir I wrote some time ago. I had yet to put it on here because it is a bit graphic and I was apprehensive at having family and friends read such things when they have not perhaps experienced that sort of honesty from me. Yet I was reading it today and I think it needs to be shared. I’m hoping we can all gain something from my experience. And if any of us have young daughters, I hope that we are good to them and also teach them to cherish their childhood and enjoy it because we will become woman very quickly. And once there, we can never go back. BUT DON’T READ THIS IF YOU FEEL UNCOMFORTABLE ABOUT READING GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS OF PUBERTY AND OTHER SEXUALLY EXPLICIT DESCRIPTIONS!


She was my best friend from third grade through sixth. I wanted to be her because she had nicer clothes and fewer rules to abide by. She got to stay up until 10:30 on school nights when I had to go to bed at 8. She got to watch rated R movies and I was limited to PG. She started puberty before me.

I remember how jealous I felt standing in the girls restroom at Preston Elementary School, Erica lifting her salmon-colored sweater, exposing her turquoise training bra with two swollen nipples pushing out against the surface of the cotton material, pointing at me as if I were the only one who hadn’t yet started to change.

That was in the 4th grade.

I remember going to her house and watching her talk on the phone with Licelle Rios or Colin Nelson, the two boys of whom I had crushes. She told me how they liked her because of her butt and I turned, twisting myself around to look at the small round curve of my own, and wishing that it would do the same; then looking back up and  saw her dad lurking around her door way. He carried a heavy presence. And even though he was nice to me, I somehow felt nervous around him. He was always making sure Erica was doing what she was supposed to, making sure she wasn’t being too silly or not silly enough. It made me feel insecure about the way I acted. Was I too silly? Too serious? Did I eat the foods I should? Was I smart enough? Did he like me best out of all of Erica’s friends?

In 5th grade, Erica and I took a bath together—once. That was when I got to see her pubic hair, dark and course, not full like my mother’s, but there just the same, just smaller and thinner—like the grass we grew in paper cups in the second grade for our dads on Father’s Day. She asked me if I used panty liners and I asked her for what.

                “For discharge, silly,” she responded as if it was a well-known fact and again, I had not known.

I remember reflecting back to the weeks before when I pulled down my underwear to use the toilet and found a whitish, slimy residue moistening the crotch of my lavender briefs. I scraped it off with my finger and brushed it onto my leg, smearing it in, wondering if it was like lotion, only to find a dry, flaky patch left in that same spot the next time I used the bathroom.

                “It is your bodies natural cleaning system,” Ms. Ivy said during 5th grade Sex Ed. And she passed out those pink boxes to all of us girls–the ones with sample pads and panty liners and a little calendar to record our menstrual cycles. The one I kept under my bathroom sink years after fifth grade, waiting, until 8th grade, when the calender in the pink box expired and I gave up, throwing it away along with the hope that I’d ever become a woman. 

But Erica’s discharge didn’t look like mine own. We both lay in the bathtub, she on one end, me on the other, our legs a tangle in between. She raised up her hips, I watched her patch of hair break through the surface of the water and then, she reached under, placing her finger under the surface again  right below her pelvic bone and pulled it back out with a large glob of pure white goop. I jumped backward, kicking my legs under me to pull away and she laughed out loud, throwing her head back.

            ” I thought you said you get it too.”

            “Yeah,” I said, “but not that much.” Seeing that scared me. Even at that age, I felt something was wrong. I didn’t take a bath with her again and turned around every time we changed into our pajamas when she or I spent the night.

Erica began changing around that time. She came to school meekly after being gone for a week because her dad “made” her go on a business trip. She put a baseball cap on and tucked her long brown hair into it.

              She said, “Call me Eric, I don’t want to be a girl anymore.” Then two days later, she showed up to school with her eyes lined in black kohl. She even put the eyeliner on the inner part of her eye. Diana, Marybel, Maricella, Lupe and I asked her why but she just put her head down.

             “You look ugly,” we said. But I really felt jealous because again she was doing something I was not allowed to do and secretly, too afraid to try. She even acted older when we watched rated R movies in her living room. Her dad made her watch The Accused and she told me it was good, so she watched it again, but with me too. I sat next to her, pulling the blanket up over me, covering my face and hugging her arm as we sat together on the recliner.

              “He’s got a cute butt,” she said, and I looked out to see the rear end of a rapist, thrusting into Jodi Foster, pinned against a pinball machine by 6 or so other men, and her screams muffled by a chanting audience. It scared me, and I wondered why it didn’t scare her.

I suppose I wasn’t the only one who picked up the feeling that something wasn’t right, although at that time, I didn’t know it was her father. So I was still quite upset the day my mother and stepfather told me I could not spend the night at Erica’s anymore.

             “She can spend the night here, but you can’t spend the night over there anymore,” Daddy Nick said, his beady black eyes narrowing and stern. His looks were ambiguous, and I often misinterpreted his stern eyes for anger. I felt I had done something wrong.

              “But why?” I asked, tears burning my cheeks.

               “There is something about her Dad we don’t like,” He responded.

And that was it. I don’t remember if I ever told Erica why. She asked me here and there if I could spend the night, and my parents instructed me to always respond with “why don’t you spend the night at my house instead?” I think she asked more often to spend the night at mine, although I didn’t understand why then. There were much more rules and I had chores that she often had to watch me do before we could play. Still, she’d spend time asking my mom questions about beauty and dieting. Daddy Nick would always joke around her and make her laugh. We were good friends and practically like sisters then.

Then my family moved to Alta Loma, a city only 20 minutes away from Rialto, but to me seemed like eternity. It was in this new town that I struggled hard to find friends. No one understanding me or loving me the way Erica did. We talked a few times on the phone. I got a card from her in the mail; the words smeared with tear stains. And then I called our mutual friend Diana to find out how to get a hold of Erica because her phone number wasn’t working.

            “You don’t know?” She asked, seriousness to her voice that made adrenalin rush through my veins within seconds. “She moved to Texas and her dad is in jail. He had been molesting her I guess. Even began raping her and gave her STD’s. She came to school one day with bruises all over her. The day before, her Dad caught her kissing Jamal. I guess, he didn’t like black boys.”

I was in seventh grade at this moment. And the last time I even thought of rape was when I watched that movie with Erica. I sat there in the hallway of my home, back against the wall as I tried to find balance, feeling cold and tasting the metallic flavor of  fear in my throat, listening to Diana go on about the details of the arrest, the rescue, and the move— news that both surprised me and didn’t.  Somehow, deep in the subconscious of my mind, I knew, yet it seemed like that just intensified the shock because with that, comes no denial to rescue me from the pain and turmoil of reality. I hung up the Garfield shaped phone and laid down right there in the hallway on my stomach, feeling the rough carpet rub against my face and I studied the memories flashing through my mind. They now seemed to make complete sense.

That night, I dreamed that Erica was strapped down onto a pinball machine at Straw Hat Pizza Parlor. I knew she was there, but I just kept eating my pizza, frightened and alone. That image still resonates in my mind, and with it, a new perception of the struggles some girls face growing up. All my childhood, I wanted to grow up and be a woman so much.  When I woke up from that fitful night of sleep, I couldn’t get the dream out of my mind. I won’t go as far to say that on that particular morning, I had become a woman, but I definitely was no longer a child. While it was Erica in my dreams who was violated,  I too had lost something protected and sacred that night . And now looking back at it all, how I wish I had stayed a girl much longer.